A Short History of Where We Came From and Why we are Here
In every culture in the world there is a myth about a before time in which humans lived more in harmony with their environment. This may actually have a basis in reality. About five thousand years ago, lands that were thickly settled with people in Northern Africa, the Mid-East, the Mediterranean, and the Indian sub-continent reached a crisis in a drought that began with the receding glaciers about 10,000 BCE. It is thought that modern agriculture began about 8,000 BCE with early Jericho, but our story begins before this, much before.
More and more, physical anthropologists are accepting that humans are descended from an aquatic ape, or a version of large, arboreal African ape who was cut off in salt marshes during the Pleistocene. Some apes, like the Bonobo chimp, returned to "normal" conditions very early, but hominids stayed in semi-aquatic situations long enough to develop many of the same features common to other animals who "went to sea" like the seal, sea otter, elephant, and beaver. Then, rather than returning to the trees, humans adapted to a life on the African plains. I won't go into much of this here, except for the question that obsesses people who are on a quest for the true diet of the human ape. Most of them think that the diet of humans should be identical to that of chimpanzees.
Here is a table by John Coleman adapted off a UK vegan site, entitled, "Comparative Anatomy and Taxonomy," that he put up at: http://www.tierversuchsgegner.org:
|Facial Muscles||Reduced to allow wide mouth gape||Well-developed||Reduced||Well-developed|
|Jaw Type||Angle not expanded||Expanded angle||Angle not expanded||Expanded angle|
|Jaw Joint Location||On same plane as molar teeth||Above the plane of the molars||On same plane as molar teeth||Above the plane of the molars|
|Jaw Motion||Shearing; minimal side-to-side motion||No shear; good side-to-side, front-to-back||Shearing; minimal side-to-side||No shear; good side-to-side, front-to-back|
|Major Jaw Muscles||Temporalis||Masseter and pterygoids||Temporalis||Masseter and pterygoids|
|Mouth Opening vs. Head Size||Large||Small||Large||Small|
|Teeth: Incisors||Short and pointed||Broad, flattened and spade shaped||Short and pointed||Broad, flattened and spade shaped|
|Teeth: Canines<||Long, sharp and curved||Dull and short or long (for defense), or none||Long, sharp and curved||Short and blunted|
|Teeth: Molars||Sharp, jagged and blade shaped||Flattened with cusps vs complex surface||Sharp blades and/or flattened||Flattened with nodular cusps|
|Chewing||None; swallows food whole||Extensive chewing necessary||Swallows food whole and/or simple crushing||Extensive chewing|
|Saliva||No digestive enzymes||Carbohydrate digesting enzymes||No digestive enzymes<||Carbohydrate digesting enzymes|
|Stomach Type||Simple||Simple or multiple chambers||Simple||Simple|
|Stomach Acidity||Less than or equal to pH 1 with food in stomach||pH 4 to 5 with food in stomach||Less than or equal to pH 1 with food in stomach||pH 4 to 5 with food in stomach|
|Stomach Capacity<||60% to 70% of total volume of digestive tract||Less than 30% of total volume of digestive tract||60% to 70% of total volume of digestive tract||21% to 27% of total volume of digestive tract<|
|Length of Small Intestine||3 to 6 times body length||10 to more than 12 times body length||4 to 6 times body length||10 to 11 times body length|
|Colon||Simple, short and smooth, no fermentation||Long, complex; may be sacculated, may ferment||Simple, short and smooth, no fermentation||Long, sacculated, may ferment|
|Liver||Can detoxify vitamin A||Cannot detoxify vitamin A||Can detoxify vitamin A||Cannot detoxify vitamin A|
|Kidney||Extremely concentrated urine||Moderately concentrated urine||Extremely concentrated urine||Moderately concentrated urine|
|Nails||Sharp claws||Flattened nails or blunt hooves||Sharp claws||Flattened nails|
However this table only shows part of the story. Yes, while it's true that this table makes humans look like other apes, there is a difference. In her book The Descent of the Child Elaine Morgan cites a colleague, Michael Crawford, making a further point about the extraordinary brain growth in infants that "building the brain tissue imposes special requirements that do not apply to other body tissues--it demands a one-to-one balance between Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty ascids are relatively scarce in the land food chain, but predominate in the marine food chain." The point of her book is the much of the analysis of humans has been of adult humans, not infants. Another fact points to mother's milk with his very high in sugars, unlike milk given by other mammals who do not need to nurse as often. Do adults need this one to one Omega ratio as well? The answer seems to be "yes." However, a diet high in meat from land animals is too high in Omega 6 and nutritionists are trying to get their patients to eat more fish.
The vegans then come in and state that people can make Alpha-linolenic acid from plant foods which is a precusor of Omega-3. How do we get ALA? The answer is from nuts and seeds, namely flaxseed and walnuts. Leafy greens also contain small amounts of ALA. Vegans also stress that people can tox out on Vitamin A from fish sources (see above table). However, we are talking about mega-doses of Vitamin A, not usually seen in a normal diet without supplements. The Eden diet seems to have been more invovled than just eating fruit, but eating nuts may have supplied the right fatty acid balance for our tremendous brain growth as adults. On the other hand, once away from the ocean, the ancient humans who ate more meat may have survived better as children and mothers, despite the problems associated with eating land animals.
Whatever our ancestry, it is very much the case that humans are adaptable enough to eat like omnivores or carnivores or herbivores, cooked or raw, sugar or salt--you name it. But only if you look at young humans. For almost all of human history, humans have rarely lived past the age of 40. Even now, most everyone under this age has fairly good health if given a chance at a decent diet, meaning a supermarket and enough money for 1800 calories a day. Ninety percent of the fuss over diet is for people who want to live beyond the age of 40; these days, that is most of us. Age is not so much a wearing out as it is a toxing out, where the stress of living on this planet as it is becomes too hard for most people to handle. Most people in this country make it for another twenty to thirty years, getting sicker and sicker if they are sensitive and often getting sick all at once if they are more robust.
Diet Fads and Adaptations Among Ancient Humans
This timeline is courtesy of Wikipedia.
- 12,000 BC - Neolithic Revolution, the first agricultural revolution, begins in the ancient Near East.
- 12,000 BC - Natufians in the Levant begin harvesting wild grasses.
- 9800 BC - Earliest evidence for domesticated wheat at PPNA sites in the Levant.
- 8500 BC - PPNB sites across the Fertile Crescent growing domestic wheat, barley, chickpeas, peas, beans, flax and bitter vetch. Sheep and goat domesticated.
- 7000 BC - agriculture had reached southern Europe with evidence of emmer and einkorn wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and pigs suggest that a food producing economy is adopted in Greece and the Aegean.
- 7000 BC - Cultivation of wheat, sesame, barley, and eggplant in Mehrgarh (India/Pakistan).
- 7000 BC - Domestication of cattle and chicken in Mehrgarh, Indian subcontinent.
- 6800 BC - Rice domesticated in southeast Asia.
- 6500 BC - Evidence of cattle domestication in Turkey. Some sources say this happened earlier in other parts of the world.
- 6000 BC Archaeological evidence from various sites on the Iberian peninsula suggest the domestication of plants and animals.
- 6000 BC - Granary built in Mehrgarh for storage of excess food.
- 5500 BC Cˇide Fields in Ireland are the oldest known field systems in the world, this landscape consists of extensive tracts of land enclosed by stone walls.
- 5000 BC - Domestication of the horse in Ukraine.
- 4000 BC - In Mehrgarh, the domestication of numerous crops, including peas, sesame seeds, dates, and cotton, as well as a wide range of domestic animals, including the Domestic Asian Water Buffalo, an animal that remains essential to intensive agricultural production throughout Asia today.
- 4000 BC - Egyptians discover how to make bread using yeast.
- 4000 BC - Evidence for rice domestication in the Korat plateau area of northwestern Thailand.
- 4000 BC - First use of light wooden ploughs in Mesopotamia.
- 3500 BC - Irrigation was being used in Mesopotamia.
- 3500 BC - First agriculture in the Americas, around Central Amazonia or Ecuador.
- 3000 BC - Turmeric, cardamom, pepper and mustard are harvested in the Indus Valley Civilization (India/Pakistan).
- 3000 BC - Fermentation of dough, grain, and fruit juices is in practice.
- 3000 BC - Sugar produced in India.
Well, as you can guess, I have two problems with this timeline. One is that it is called a "revolution" as if it happened suddenly, out of the blue. The other is that the emphasis here is on grains and red meat. The history of nuts is difficult to place. There is evidence of a domesticated walnut as early as 7,500 BCE in Switzerland, and people place the beginning of domestication at about 12,000 BCE. The almond was found in the Levant in its bitter form, which had to be leached of the glycoside amygdailin, which, when the nut or plant is injured becomes prussic acid or hydrogen cyanide. Earliest guesses at a sweet almond sport being domesticated are about 3,500 BCE. Most other nuts were not domesticated as such, but were cultivated at various times in managed woodlands.
The history of wheat is not so easy. Even after wheat had been cultivated to not shatter on the plant, even after it was cut by hand, the processing it underwent after harvest was much more involved than what modern cultivars undergo. Here is a quote from www.touregypt.net:
After threshing, it breaks into packets called spikelets, each of which is a thick envelope of chaff that tightly surround two kernels. Prior to winnowing and sieving to clean the chaff from the kernels, a process is needed to break the chaff apart without damaging the grain.
From various research and experimental evidence, we do have some idea of the procedures employed to processes the spikelets by the ancient Egyptians. We believe that whole spikelets were moistened with a small amount of water and than pounded with wooden pestles in limestone mortars. Since the water made the spikelets pliable, the chaff could be shredded without crushing the grain kernels inside. This was not a time consuming process, although the ancient Egyptian mortars were usually small and several batches of spikelets had to be processed before enough freed kernels were produced to make bread for even a family. Even after this added process, the released grain kernels and broken chaff then had to be tried, Bakers mixing and kneading dough and filling bread moulds from a painting in the tomb of Qenamun in Sheikh Abd el-Qurna on the West Bank of Thebesprobably under the sun. Afterwards, it went through a series of winnowing steps, and sieving, The sieves made from rushes and the like were not very efficient and allowed grains of sand and little flakes of stone to remain in the flour, especially when soft mill stones were used. In fact, the last step in the process was the removal of final fragments of chaff which were picked out by hand.
If this is any indication of a "revolution" then there is a huge, unanswered question: "why go to all this trouble over something that can't even be eaten until it is cooked or soaked?" Why all this focus on crops that are 1. annuals, 2. grown with backbreaking toil, 3. inedible in their dried state, and 4. require so much management? We never hear much about the arboreal revolution, although the advances in fruit breeding have been at least as great as the advances in breeding grains, pulses and other vegetables.
The other obvious food technology missing from the traditional timeline is that of fishing. Fish were not domesticated until very recently, much like nuts. They weren't even selected and bred for better characteristics. Boats were invented much earlier than the wheel and people traveled widely using them long before they rode animals or rode in carts. Even today, fishing enjoys a much wider audience of sportsmen than hunting and it's not just because there are not as many large mammals to chase down and shoot. Fishermen enjoy as much of the "mighty hunter" experience as game hunters, perhaps more so these days now that safaris are mostly by camera. Fishing is so easy that a child can do it. Fishing is easier than trapping game and it is more reliable than the safari. But you never hear much about fishing in the mighty "revolution" that led to civilization. Somehow a herd of carp in a pond is not the same as a herd of longhorn steers being round up to go to Texas. We have epic battles in mythology fought over cows, but not over fish, although fish show up all the time. The only fish that seem at all in the danger category are sharks, and people don't eat them very much. And you certainly don't hear much about the great revolution in raising mussels although it is now suspected that early tool use began with cracking open mussels and other shellfish.
The not so obvious missing food technology is that of recreational drugs or medicinal herbs. One of the oldest domesticated plants is not wheat, but hemp. Like nuts, hempseed is much higher in calories and has the perfect ratio of Omega fatty acids. The leaves are edible, the flower is medicinal, and the stalks can be retted to make fiber that is more durable than cotton or paper. It seems logical that a rare plant that had great medicinal powers would be special enough to cultivate even when humans were still pulling nuts off the trees in the great forests that spanned from India to Gilbraltar. And there is the secret, for today there are no great forests. That may be the real clue as to why humans turned to the cultivation of foods that were barely edible at best.
Even in our ancient town of Jericho, where played such a huge role in civilizing hunter gatherers people still persisted in growing and gathering and buying and trading dates, pomegranates, citrus, pistashios, almonds, apricots, figs, and many other tree foods, now extinct. The fact that humans started hoarding cereals and pulses is evidence that something else was happening in the area and the suspect is that drought was stressing the trees from the Straits of Gilbraltar to the Himalaya. This was a drought that began with the recession of the glaciers, but was aggravated by mankind's intervention in the form of overgrazing and war and agriculture so much so, that by 1000 BCE most of the trees were gone. Even though humans had turned to growing seeds and pulses, much of the money coming out of the Levant is still in the form of nuts and fruits. The arboreal culture survived even the deforestation of the area yet is hidden by this idea of the agricultural revolution.
Let's take a look at this "revolution."
Growing enough cereal to feed a family is back-breaking work. Growing enough nuts to feed a family is not nearly so involved. Why humans would have turned from collecting nuts to trying to cultivate cereals, indicates an appalling lack, or a famine, rather than an advance. Well, let me rephrase--humans are so adaptable, that they could survive a famine so well that they aggravated it by over-crowding the area. This might be the chicken/egg scenario where the famine may have begun just because there were too many humans, but there is solid evidence that the world was drying up and too many humans were too adaptable just to die out.
I'm going to overload you with facts later, but let's just look at a couple of modern plants: wheat and almonds. A hundred grams of wheat (about 3 ounces) cannot just be eaten but must be soaked or cooked. A hundred grams of almonds can be eaten out of hand once they are shelled. Wheat must be shelled as well, or husked, or threshed. But let's start with a handful of wheat berries and a handful of almonds. 100 grams each. The almonds can be eaten and they provide roughly 550-600 calories. A human can meet all their caloric needs for the day. with 300 grams of almonds, little over half a pound. A 100 grams of wheat can be eaten if it is soaked for 8 hours. At that point, the phytic acid turns to sugars, the wheat softens and begins to sprout if it is not rancid. That 100 grams becomes 200 grams with the addition of the water. That 200 grams of wheat now provides about 400 calories. Both foods have fat and minerals and vitamins, so we won't quibble here.
The real problem is not just between the foods. The almond tree over there, takes up about 100 square feet of space, or 9 square meters. It provides, once a year, about twenty pounds of almonds, shelled. To grow 20 pounds of wheat, you need 2-300 square feet of space and you have to plant 12,000 seeds that will grow into mature plants, which means keeping the bugs and birds off of it and watering it and weeding it. Your almond tree provides shade for you to rest in while you eat last year's almonds, but you need to work that plot of wheat to get the end result. We're being generous here with both the almonds and the wheat, for the crops 5,000 years ago were not quite so heavy-yielding. Okay. Your almonds will last you about two months and your wheat will last you about a month, so all that work for your wheat on twice as much space, you got half as many calories and worked probably a hundred times as hard.
This is not an advance, guys. To have chosen cereals over so many different kinds of nuts implied that something was really wrong. Now humans kept eating nuts all that time, but not like they ate (and eat) wheat. To date, the world almond production is at about 1.8-2 million tons whereas world wheat crop figures more like 600 million tons. Even generously, there is more than 300 times more wheat being grown on twice the land for half the calories. We could add in all the other nuts in production in the world and still not come close to the amount of wheat. Add in rice, rye, corn and other grains and we're back to this ratio. And anyone should wonder why people are starving? Yes, I know wheat can be grown in a wider range of conditions than almonds, but that's an excuse. In places like California where wheat and acorns both grow in the same climate, what do people eat? Wheat. Why wheat? And before we go running off with reasons that might sound good, here's another fact. Wheat needs about .25 inch of water a day during its growing season (about five months). Almonds need about 40 inches of rainfall a year, but so does wheat. However, you can get a crop of wheat in 150 days and it will take you about 5 years to begin getting a crop of 20 pounds of almonds a year from a tree. So there may have been two problems our ancestors faced: a shortened time horizon and some kind of conditions that made it more difficult to grow trees.
Although wheat was the most popular of the grains grown in the Levant, almonds were at first bitter and were most likely leached or roasted to remove their poisons as acorns were soaked to remove the tannins. Yet other trees, such as pistachios never had this problem. If we add in fruit trees, which have been modified for thousands of years, the agriculture picture looks even stranger with wheat leading the "revolution." Other cultures also faced this problem: corn and beans in the Americas; rice and soy in Asia, millet and peas in Africa. I cannot help but come to the conclusion that growing grains and pulses was not better for the individual, but somehow better for a managed group. I say managed because part of agriculture was the split of society from hunter/gatherer into manager-owner/grower-herder and the advent of a society in which a number of people were workers under the control of an elite. People speak of an agrarian golden age, but this is largely misunderstood. Certainly there were societies where people were peaceful and also agrarian, but being so did not protect them from the later devastations of the influx of starving barbarian hoardes who settled down to produce the great civilizations of the world. And there are still peaceful groups of people who are hunters, fishers and gathers rather than growers of wheat.
Was Agriculture Civilization or Was it Slavery?
Famine produces stressful conditions under which we still struggle.
As I see it, agriculture is neither to blame or to praise. On one hand it allowed for humans to survive in famine stricken areas, but on the other it made them more vulnerable to famine and extremely attractive to plunderers. If you are starving and are driven out of your lands because of bad weather, and you come across a thriving community of people with more food than they can use (or so it seems) and you have the means to take it, well, that is history. It is folly to blame agriculture for the rise of war any more than it is wise to bless agriculture for the rise of civilization. Agriculture was one of many, many adaptions that came during that time. If there was evidence that fire had been invented at the same time that we see wheat being stored in Jericho, fire would fall under the same umbrella of the "agricultural revolution." As it is, people are puzzled by evidence that Neanderthals had fire, yet did not cook their food. But everyone agrees that fire goes with cave men and hunting whereas the wheel and the brick go with the ox and the bag of wheat.
I did not put in those parenthetical comments just for fun. Most gardners fail because what they can grow is not what they want to eat. Most diets fail because what people should eat is not what they will eat or can eat. Many gardens go neglected every year because it's too hard and it takes too much time and it's just easier to go to the store. I agree. I'm lazy; I don't like eating buggy food; I sunburn in ten minutes and I'm way too busy to spend all my time in a garden. But I also have major food allergies and cannot eat 90 percent of what is in the grocery store. Restaurants are a total joke for the most part. So do I have to just force myself to do what is good for me and be miserable? No, no, no, no, absolutely not.
Let's look as some aspects of the three wheels of our problem that are covered in detail in these pages.
- What is a nourishing food? A food must: taste good, feel good, and be good for you.
- What do I eat, how much do I eat, why do I eat it? Food must be: filling, satisfying, and delightful.
- How should food be prepared? Most people never learn to cook--learn how to enjoy feeding yourself.
- Will it make me sick? Learn about plant poisons and food poisons that we commonly ingest (not just pesticides!)
- Eating is life long. Eating is a skill. Eating habits should be flexible enough to accomodate life changes.
- What about the kids (spouse)? There are different kinds of eaters and different eating needs.
- Eating for illness. Food can help heal any problem that you have. But it's up to you, no one else.
- What should I have on hand? Food for when things go wrong: storms, emergencies, politics even!
- How can I keep food fresh? What to do with the harvest--seriously.
- What happens if the whole world goes to pot? Yes, I'm going to tell you that, too, for serious hoarders.
- The canning/freezing dilemma. It's not the time/skill doing it, it's the dollars it takes to do it.
- How can I make emergencies less expensive? You can, you must, otherwise it's a disaster.
- What do I do with 20 pounds of wheat berries? What the books tell you is wrong, wrong, wrong!
- We've got the storage, but I'm tired of eating tuna fish! Emergency rations must taste good, not be boring, and be good for you.
- What is not in the books. Either you must read every garden book you can find, or forget about them.
- Getting rid of prima-donna plants. Every plant should do double or triple duty, like provide leaves AND roots to eat.
- Many plants are poison until cooked. I don't grow plants that I can't eat raw. If you have no power, you can't eat them.
- Put your money into the soil. How to compost, how to prep a bed, how to mulch--the serious way.
- Don't waste money on water--don't waste water. Simple rules to follow in getting around the West's big problem.
- Why garden books are not written for your climate. Grow smarter, don't follow directions!
- Don't till, don't plant, don't rush, don't panic. Getting out of the gardening cycle with perennials and self-seeders.
- Cut costs by cutting the hobby out of gardening. No frills, no waste, no costs.
- Why you can't survive on red tomatoes and iceberg lettuce. How to grow better and different foods.
- It's where you live. How to make your garden an Eden for you and the kids.
A Bit About Me
Where am I coming from? Why should you pay attention to me and what I say over all those other master gardeners? Well, you shouldn't. You should listen to everyone. But I have a few things that I can tell you that are different. Here is a bit about why I know what I know and do what I do, if you are curious.
I've put in about twenty gardens in the past 25 years. I have yet to garden anywhere like England or New Jersey. I've gardened in California, Colorado and Florida, but under difficult conditions. This is a picture of a California garden that I grew. It was started on what is generously called "clay" in the books. I took a pickax to the ground and was able to get down about an inch. The "clay" was green. This garden was constructed with two by tens frame beds. I could not reach across the beds to the center, but I dropped in a couple of stepping stones into the beds to save space. (I'm not big on paths.) The wood made it easy to attach framework for trellises. But I had to buy soil. I also made soil, using each bed as a compost pit. I did not have to put down weed barriers since the soil was so hard and awful that I had no weeds--really! The first year, my five foot snow peas grew twelve feet tall, right up onto the roof. I also had to cover the beds with net to keep out the birds, but they were smart enough to lift up the edges of the netting, crawl into the beds and then get trapped. In winter we had so much rain on that hardpan that my rosemary rotted. But only two months of it. Temperatures were in the 90's for six months, but I had every vegetable imaginable from carrots to bulb fennel. I'm big into edible flowers as well--you can see some of them in this picture--color coordinated!
My garden in Florida was quite the adventure. Every day people came by and said, "I didn't know you could grow a garden in Florida!" Snowbirds. Being from zone 2, I was happy to grow in zone 10, but what a challenge! First off, you can't begin to grow stuff in March. Everyone says "start your plants in September." Nope. My gray sand was so hot that it burned the seeds--yep, burned them. Unlike the California garden, I had sand. At first I thought that was cool, but the sand was so much like the beach that you couldn't stand a fork in it, everything just fell over. Then there was the monsoon. It rains in Florida like it rains in Colorado--about three inches an hour. If you plant, your seeds and seedlings get beat up and then just float away, like broken carcasses of hope. But the big, big problems were the bugs and disease. Growing in Florida is a race against bugs and disease. Some plants like squash, corn and tomatoes were a total joke. Bug magnets. But I was then growing a wide range of everything. My sunflowers wilted right away, but the Maximillian sunflowers were fine. My squashes rotted before they could set fruit, but the gourds (lagenaria spp) were fine and gave me zucchini like fruit all summer. My sesame (shown here) was seven feet tall, and I had perennial hot peppers and basil. I had greens coming out my ears, but none of it lettuce. I grew bushels and bushels of produce, some of it familiar, like wonderful broccoli, but some of it new, like molokhiya (an Egyptian green) but very yummy.
I figured that if a plant could make it through the summer in Florida that it was a candidate for anywhere in the south. But stuff traditionally grown in the south, like crowder peas, utterly failed me in zone 10. Because I was flexible and grew a wide range of food, I had food coming out my ears. I had no summer squash, but I had lagenaria and watermelon. I had loads of sesame and onions and rare plants like motherwort, but no strawberries or bush beans. I had tomatoes galore in winter, but not after March. I grew many varieties, but suprisingly, the southern varieties did not do well, but the cold varieties did well in the winter there. I had to rethink everything. I had to grow under lights in August and September to have plants ready to go when the monsoon was over for the short season before March brought in the wind and heat. I learned that fire ants (the bane of existence) do not like fertile soil. But my buried compost disappeared in two days, the bugs in my sand were that hungry. I also had to learn to water. I built up raised beds, but cut irrigation channels in them. I then ran the water down the channels because if I sprinkled, the sand just ate up the water. The water had to sit on the surface for a bit so the plants could get some of it. But I loved every minute of it. It was different and challenging. I planted about 10,000 seeds, got about 1,000 transplants for only a hundred plants of which half died. But what survived gave me so much food that I was giving it away.
I began gardening when my son was very little, thinking that he would like to be outside. Like many moms with toddlers, I was bored out of my skull. I had gardened as a child, growing the 1 cent seed pack and not expecting (or getting) much. I had no people in my family who gardened and I had no gardening friends. But I plunged into it even though my son hated the garden and was jealous of my putting time into it. He would stomp every seedling that went into the ground. But within a year he was eating out of the yard, and eating on hikes and eating pretty much any plant that looked appealing. After he ate a bunch of green iris seeds (thinking they were peas) and I panicking not knowing if he would start vomiting or die (since we were far from any hospital) I realized that much of what people grow is poisonous. People grow plants usually because they are pretty. They also dump chemicals on their yards to deal with the bugs and weeds. Here I was, trying to raise a child on home-grown veggies in a world, not only full of naturally poison plants, but plants selected by my neighbors who were ignorant of their danger. Rather than keep my son out of the garden and break him of the habit of eating anything he found that looked appealing, I began a long path of adjusting my own yard to be completely edible. Most children are very good at asking if something is edible by the age of four. Before that time, kids have to be watched. If you are on the trail, that's one thing, but if you're in the yard, hacking at the tomatoes and the kids are playing in the bushes in the front, you may not know that they've eaten something poisonous until it's too late. Most people are afraid to let their children run wild in the world, and knowing that their own yards are unsafe is even worse for them, aggravating their fears. However, my son, now at 19, is 6'7" and loves raw veggies and is an avid gardener himself--this book is for him as well as for you.
This garden was in zone 3 a step up from my Telluride place in zone 2. Winters were 7 months of 50 below zero. This garden was one of my many gardens that were grown above 7,000 feet. I'm not a carpenter, nor am I rich, so I rigged this cold frame and used old empty jugs I had found and filled with water as a heat sink. So even though the grass was green here, I could not yet put out the plants. This was also one of the places where we had serious water restrictions. People would report their neighbors if they kept their trees alive. So every drop of water counted. I watered everything by hand with old dish water and water from inside, taken to the garden in watering cans.
Here is a Polaroid of another high altitude garden in zone 3 where the AVERAGE wind speed for 9 months of the year was 60 mph. Average. This garden was on the leaward side of the house, but it was the site of the old house that had burned and the dump for the new house. It was full of rocks, and I mean boulders, not pebbles. So I took them out by hand and made walls like they do in New England. This was another garden in which I could not do overhead watering. The UV at this altitude is so intense that you cannot leave drip hoses on the surface, so I buried Leaky Pipe at 6 inches around the bed and put in foot stones. If you look carefully, you can see what look to be plastic pots covered with rocks. There are also cages made of chicken wire. Well, this was because of the chipmunks. They loved those rocks. They would dig up everything, take a bite of it and throw it down to die.
We had three months to grow here, but little snow. It was dry and brutal, true alpine desert. But there were millions of wildflowers. We also had a herd of deer who just marched across our yard every day. I did not have the money to put up fences, so I grew stuff the deer wouldn't eat. This garden is still growing strong, ten years later, a big part of the house. When I moved down the the flats, I gardened through the autumn. Springtime in Colorado means 3 foot snows and hail and temps that are freezing one day and in the 80's the next. So I gardened in the fall and into the winter. I had so many plants survive the winter down at 6000 feet, that it changed my perspective about winter growing. In the West, we have the sunlight to grow all winter, even when it's cold at night. I grew lettuce all winter right out in the open. I had greens all winter. I also let plants like amaranth, that does not like freezing temps, set seed that then came up every year. So although plants like amaranth are considered hot weather plants, they can reseed even in brutal climates like you find in Colorado. This got me started on over-wintering and re-seeding annuals. Much of my books deals with these kinds of plants, that can fend for themselves.
When I turned 40, I started having massive problems with digestion, early onset arthritis and acid reflux. I had had asthma and was an invalid as a teenager. I'm not very strong, thin and underweight like my father's family. After my grandmother and my father died of cancer, I realized that I had better pay attention to my own health. It took about five years (and I'm still working on it at 50) to figure out what allergies I have. I have what are called "food intolerances" (another joke) which don't cause me to go to hospital, but will eventually give me cancer. Fun. When I tell people what I can't eat, they look at me, confused, and say, "well, then what CAN you eat?" Not much from the store. I don't eat grains, dairy, red meat, poultry, beans, soy products, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, onions, garlic, mustard, citrus, and many fruits. This wipes out about 90 percent of what is sold in the store. I also eat about 80 percent or more of my food raw. I find that the oils used in cooking make my joints ache.
I was always really, really picky about food, much to my parents' amusement and disgust. If my mother had known that I had a massive dairy and grain allergy, I might have been in better health, but because I could not tolerate milk very well, she started feeding me Cream O' Wheat at 2 months old on the advice of her doctor. So my digestion and my immune system are kind of a wreck and always were. Combine that with living in L.A. long enough to get serious asthma, well, I'm not super healthy. Except that I am now. I grew to hate eating; eating would make me nauseous and sick. But little by little, I have been able to recover some enjoyment of eating and now I have enough energy to run up ten flights of stairs. I have no digestion problems until I eat something I shouldn't. I also was able to stop arthritis and make my asthma much better and get rid of my acid reflux. I'm healthier now than I have ever been in my life.
BUT, it takes work. And most of that work is easier with a garden. Grocery shopping is hard for me. It's harder for me to eat out where all the smells make me so hungry and I can't eat the food without getting sick. But I can grow what I can eat. The problem I face with not doing grains or beans is getting enough calories. I could eat nuts, but most nuts give me the runs, which doesn't help! I'm an herbalist, but I believe more in food medicine, not herbal medicine or vitamins or supplements. Vitamins and supplements are way too expensive for my budget, which is under $200 a month spending money, including food. My health is tied to gardening and the way I grow, I have little need to stockpile a bunch of beans I can't eat!